A Far Cry From Kensington
The Ballad of Queen Cristina … part two
Buying a lovely New Directions edition of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington seemed the most appropriate thing to do this week. The day before I had lunch with Cristina in the sitting room of a charming hotel just by South Kensington. I spectacularly failed to follow the script though. I was meant to do an interview with her to celebrate Ze’s reissue of her slim set of recordings. The plan was to sell the story to one of the music magazines, raise her profile, raise mine, and have a lot of fun along the way. But I lost my way. I was so carried away that I forgot I was meant to be doing an interview. I failed to take any notes. I even forgot to take a tape recorder along with me. But my time with Cristina will stay with me always. I think she turned my life upside down, and inside out, and I still don’t know quite what I mean by that.

Sleep It Off, her second LP, is available properly in the UK for the first time ever. 20 years on it still sounds fantastic, and the Ze packaging is truly luxurious. There are two songs there ('What’s A Girl To Do' and 'He Dines Out On Death') that are as good as anything available. The first Cristina LP was just one of those fantastically glamorous things that can turn your head. It was part of that first wave of Ze records: James White and the Blacks, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Marie et les Garcons. Those records opened up all sorts of possibilities. Pop should never have been plain again.

There is a seemingly strange comment from producer Don Was as part of the Cristina sleevenotes about how he went to dinner with her and felt intellectually dwarfed. Elsewhere Richard Strange has written a piece about how he found Cristina to be “elegant, intelligent, beautiful and the wittiest girl I have ever met.” I now know what they mean.

'What’s A Girl To Do' and 'He Dines Out On Death' may be the best of pop songs, but it’s rare to find writers and performers who have a way with words really live the part. Cristina gushes words. She loves them. She delivers the most astonishing of sentences perfectly naturally. She challenges and cajoles and charms. She throws out references with the greatest of ease. She shares enthusiasms with relish. She is, for example, genuinely delighted that someone has picked up on the Jean Rhys clue that is Sleep It Off (and indeed the “Good Morning, Midnight” reference in 'Things Fall Apart', which is in turn a nod to Chinua Achebe …).

She is struggling with a dreadful debilitating illness, but she does so with remarkable grace and disdain. She should be universally adored, a multinational treasure, but chose instead somehow to avoid recording any more pop records after Sleep It Off. What is ineluctable is that her imagination will not have been idle over the years. Clearly anyone with such a way with words will have been scribbling away, recording a series of talking books, memorising songwords which ridicule the ones we put up with in her absence.

I should have probed and interrogated, and come away with some of her words to share with you. I will never forget Cristina reciting the words to her Marianne Faithful song, like a poisoned Noel Coward. But instead of begging for more I start talking about Vic Godard and tell her about Subway Sect.

It’s just that I have this theory about the most brilliant minds of their generation making some sort of strange conscious decision not to compete. I don’t know. Both Vic and Cristina have this astonishing gift to use words, but there is so little available to demonstrate this. And idiots like me find this so strangely appealing. Because idiots like me are quite happy to be ridiculously embroiled in an anonymous and stupidly demanding job, rather than devoting their energies to being disciplined and doing some real writing of their own. Have you ever read J D Salinger’s Franny? It is all about being brave enough not to compete.

I tell Cristina how Subway Sect started by sitting in South London bedroom reading Moliere plays aloud to one another. She likes that idea. I should have been pleading with her to read me some of her stories. She insists that I go away and write a great Balzacian book about the human comedy of life on the railways. Instead I should have been insisting she be the one that writes the great 21st century book.

We could have been planning to make more of a name for ourselves. Instead we start gossiping about books and all the things that really matter. We share a love of Jean Rhys, we talk about Balzac and Dreiser, and enthuse about Patricia Highsmith. She solves the mystery of how to pronounce Ngaio Marsh, and I try to convince her to read lots of Shena Mackay. That’s when we get on to Muriel Spark. We ponder the merits of modern writers, and rightly condemn the likes of Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis. We sneer at those that wear their art on their sleeve, and muse about the vision the young Bob Dylan possessed. I forgot to ask if she had read Douglas Coupland. I also forgot to mention Vic Godard had been working on a musical inspired by Theophile Gaultier. I think that would have appealed just as a modern reworking of Oliver! appalled her.

I am as I have been for the past 25 years fumbling around with this train of thought about the idea of something being more attractive than the drive to make that something a success. Both Cristina and Vic Godard, worlds apart as they are in some ways, are aware they should have had enough drive to get a group together that would remain the perfect outlet for their songs. You and I are probably aware we did very little to encourage them.

If you buy one record this year, please make it Cristina’s Sleep it Off. It’s a special record, and she’s a special lady. She is also the only person to ever ask me if esurient is used in a pejorative way. She also made me incredibly happy by saying how wonderful Lizzy Mercier Descloux was. In fact on the CD 'Things Fall Apart' is dedicated to her “chere copine in adversity …”.

© 2004 John Carney